How to change perceptions?

The Port Phillip Leader published several letters recently on the now familiar themes of opposition to new development and what is seen as a loss of local identity, and they all blamed the local council:

'Local ratepayers are the last to be considered when planning applications for high density monstrosities are submitted to council.'

'The fact is that council just cannot resist the grab for rates when it comes to high density developments.'

'I have totally lost respect for my council as they have done nothing to preserve the amenity and character of my neighbourhood.'

'Residents have been sold out by councils to development companies.'

'You will never get back what has been destroyed.'

'Councillors once were people who protected communities they represent, but now many are the key to developer's cash grabs.'

Now as someone who takes a tough line with councils himself, I have to say that these comments are totally unfair and illustrate a lack of understanding of the way councils, planning and development work.  And although I'm critical of my local councillors on particular issues, these quite unfair aspersions show what an unrewarding role being a councillor can be and why, perhaps, there is such a lack of good elected people in local government.

However, whatever we might think, these are peoples' perceptions of the situation.  To some extent they might be changed if they knew the facts and understood how things work, but I think it's more than that, and those of us who think it's important that residential densities need to be increased, have to try and understand and find ways to overcome adverse perceptions like these.

The justification for a denser city is unanswerable.  It's simply a fact that our climate is changing, and great, not yet imaginable changes will be forced on our society in the years to come.  Peak oil has probably already been passed, we have to find ways of generating power other than by burning coal and creating even more of the emissions that are causing our world to warm up.  Our economy must become more sustainable in every way, not just in water and energy use, in order to cope with a world that is going to get warmer and dryer.

We have to stop placing our reliance on continuing economic growth, and accept that wise Buddhist saying that the beginning of real wisdom is when one develops an innate understanding and acceptance that 'nothing remains the same, everything changes.' 

A plan has been proposed to stabilize Australia's population at around 26 million people rather than the 35 million (or more) people estimated by 2050 if nothing were done. It's self evident to me, that ever larger populations are unsustainable, that the more people, the more problems like global warming, food and water shortages, an overcrowded city, transport congestion, the extinction of species and collapse of fisheries, and even war and acts of terrorism, will be exacerbated.

On current estimates, Melbourne, which already exceeds four million people, will need to accommodate several million more people before 2050 whatever else we might do to slow down growth in the meantime.  So how to permit changes in our suburbs is not an issue we can avoid addressing, the question is rather how to best achieve this end in a desirable way that is acceptable to most citizens.  Melbourne cannot just keep growing with low-density suburbs sprawling halfway to Albury, in economic and environmental terms this would be completely unsustainable in transport, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. 

As a result of these issues and the likely slow breaking down of the globalised world in response to climate change, I don't think we have any choice; our society just can't afford to continue the present pattern of growth. 

We must try and contain our population growth within the current metropolitan boundaries where there are already roads with water, sewerage and drainage pipes under them and where electrical power is already available, as well as shops, football ground, schools and (some) public transport.

Action was taken in the Brumby government's Melbourne 2030 plan to accommodate this anticipated growth by permitting higher density development to be concentrated around transport hubs like railway stations, and it is the built consequences of this policy that the letter writers are objecting to.  And although I may have some reservations about the details, in principle I think the 2030 action was a necessary and desirable change.

However these changes weren't something councils sought (or even necessarily agreed with), the State government imposed them on councils so they became part of all the legal planning schemes in the metropolitan area.  So as long as developers stay within the rules of the planning scheme when making a Development Application, the council has no option but to approve it. 

If they don't, because of public opposition or some other political reason, the developer can appeal to VCAT and if it is found to comply with the law, VCAT in turn has no option but to approve it.  Apart from feeling good, nothing would have been gained by council rejection and it would have cost ratepayers a lot of money to appeal.  It's no good blaming the council or the developer, it's simply the way it is, and it's clear that the letter writers don't understand this situation.  

Councils are not approving these developments in order to get more rates or to help developers. I also suspect that the perceptions of these writers will not change, that  tall buildings are just another one of the many things they dislike about modern life and feel helpless about, and this makes it all the worse when their familiar neighborhood changes its character.  But we should try and make the general perception one that accepts denser development in special places but insists that it should be better development.

We don't have any choice but to try and contain the growth of our cities, but I'm optimistic that the growth areas we are talking about in the existing suburbs need not necessarily be bad; I have faith in the potential power of good planning and architecture, although there's precious little evidence of it so far.  There are some places, Bay Street in Port Melbourne is a good example, where new eight storey residential buildings (with the top floor(s) stepped back) not only don't intrude but enhance the street.  And the extra residents have had the desired impact of making the street more lively and interesting, and the shops more profitable and employing more people as a result.

Ever since the courts rejected planning decisions made on the basis of appearance over sixty years ago, councils have been loath to make decisions about aesthetic merit. But that doesn't mean that the approval process couldn't be more all-embracing, with real design options being discussed in public forums. As an architect I'm more critical than most people of the aesthetics of most new buildings, but I also appreciate that it's pretty difficult to legislate for good design. 

I think we have to be realistic that the new buildings in Bay Street are acceptable and fit well enough into the urban scene; they may not be world class architecture, but they won't frighten the horses as an old professor I knew used to say.  At the same time I'm not resigned about it, we should be doing everything we can to improve the quality of residential design.

Realistically, there is no way the State government is likely to remove the Melbourne 2030 provisions for increased densities. The Bailleau government is proposing to replace the 2030 plan with some new planning strategy that hasn't been released yet, and there is a strong likelihood that a Liberal government will permit even higher density development in more places with more flexible planning rules.  No doubt there will be an opportunity to have our say when the new Strategic Plan is released but in my opinion any chance of influencing it is not high!

'AI respect that the letter writers are expressing genuine and sincerely held views, and that even when they understand the situation better, they might still not like what is happening.  If they disagree with me about Bay Street so be it, but there should be more of a dialogue about these issues as they are not going to go away; a more built up city is going to happen whether you like it or not, so we should be finding ways of improving the design quality of buildings in every way.  I've been critical of the current ineffective and often time serving ways councils try and solicit the views of the public (see Are they really listening to us?) so we need to ensure that everyone can have a proper say and their views are respected and listened to.

Here are some of the things I would propose.  I think eight storeys (with some setbacks ) should be the absolute height limit and six would be better in some places.  Eight storeys may sound high but when seen in an urban context of existing two and three storey buildings, my experience is that for most people, buildings of this height quickly become background and are accepted as fitting in.  All new buildings should have a community garden on the roof for the residents, they will need them in the warmer years that are coming and we should also ensure all new buildings have the full panoply of environmental improvements. They should be better insulated and incorporate passive solar design with double glazed windows, collect rainwater and generate their own power from solar cells, and be designed with natural cross ventilation so there is no need for power hungry air conditioners.  Solar water heaters should provide hot water for domestic use and to heat the apartments.  Carparking should be drastically curtailed to encourage the use of nearby public transport. 

These are some of the things that councils can and should influence and in my opinion, all these things would also have a desirable flow-on influence on the appearances of the buildings. I hesitate to suggest even more council involvement and delays, and council planners would have to climb down from their 'know-it-all' detachment and genuinely participate in a workshop situation to help find the right answers for each particular site. I can hear voices saying all this is a recipe for increased costs, and while there is no doubt that the environmental stuff does increase the first cost, in the long run both the community and the residents will be both more sustainable and better off financially.  We can't afford NOT to in my opinion.

There is a new approach in some scientific endeavours that has been dubbed 'collective intelligence' where a great number of minds solve complex problems quickly by everyone adding or subtracting their own contribution according to their particular talents.  I don't know how well this could be applied to planning situations, particularly when questions of cost and aesthetics are at stake.  And I'm ever mindful of the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee!  Steve Jobs would have scorned the idea that excellence could be achieved by collective community action like this, so some sort of final approval would probably still have to reside with the council. 
We should be willing to try new ways and see what works best. 

A hobbyhorse of mine is to devise profit incentives that will encourage developers to provide unit(s) in all new residential buildings that would be vested in the council to rent to low income and aged members of our community. It's not just the economy stupid, we should be aiming for social sustainability as well!  A system of planning and profit incentives to bring about the inclusion of desirable design features in buildings was included to advantage in the Strategic Plan for the City of Sydney prepared by the Clarke Gazzard office in 1971, and worked well.  More about this at another time.

Don Gazzard
April 2012